How I Became a Gardener at 42

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve never had a green thumb.

When I was younger, I’d water my mom’s garden and help her kill slugs, but I just wasn’t that interested in gardening.

When I got my own place, I didn’t buy plants. Just couldn’t be bothered even though I’ve always enjoyed looking at flowers and plants. Sometimes, someone would give me a plant for a gift and I’d take care of it.

Some lived, some died. C’est la vie.

But then I met my husband Marcus who has a thumb so green that his hand could pass for the Incredible Hulk. Marcus can turn a dirt patch into an oasis; a stick into 20 pounds of wine grapes; and a sliver of a leaf into a 3-foot tall aloe vera with arms as thick as a human’s.

When we moved into our townhouse back in 2008, it had no yard, just a wooden deck. But Marcus didn’t let that stop him.

Over time, Marcus transformed our deck into a lush garden, replete with all kinds of plants, flowers, and edibles; including pitcher plants, hostas, fuchsias, a sprawling grapevine, raspberry bushes, and large pots of climbing hops.

But the one thing that was hard to grow was vegetables. After building his own planter box that was as big as a coffin, Marcus spent several years trying to grow tomatoes, brussels sprouts, pumpkins, cucumbers, watermelon and more. We had one good year of tomatoes but most years, not much at all.

So, we applied for the City of Seattle’s P-Patch Community Gardens Program. It’s a screaming good deal. For less than $50 and eight hours of volunteer time per year, you get a garden plot to call your own (and free water!). The only thing is the wait list is very long.

But we were patient…and two and a half years later, we got in!

I decided then and there that I would learn to garden. We would do it together.

P-Patch BeforeHere’s what our patch looked like after we weeded it and put tiles down for stepping on. There’s also some radicchio starts on the right hand side.

P-Patch Before2Here’s what our patch looked like after we removed the grape hyacinths and planted our first starts of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, kale, cucumbers and parsley.

LettucesWe received our almost-100-square-foot plot at the Thyme P-Patch in April and after a month or two, we were harvesting lettuce! Let me tell you–fresh is so much better than store-bought.

VeggiesPretty soon, we were cutting our produce shopping at the grocery story in half! A typical weekly bounty from our patch is pictured above: buttercrunch lettuce at the top, butterhead speckles lettuce on the right, cucumbers, and arugula on the left.

Red-PepperIn just a little over four months, I’ve learned a lot about vegetable gardening. Like how you should stagger planting your lettuce starts by a week or two so that you always have fresh heads to harvest all summer long. Thanks to fellow P-Patcher Mark, I learned how to make slug traps out of old yogurt containers and cheap beer. Also, I had no idea that it would take nearly 120 days for bell peppers to ripen and turn red. But what beauties they are when they do turn!

Tomato Harvest Aug 2014Speaking of beauties, here’s one of our red bell peppers with our bumper crop of Uncle Wilf Tomatoes and Black Russian Tomatoes courtesy of fellow Ballard gardener Krazy Kate who sells her precious tomato starts one day a year in May.

Marcus-and-his-veggiesMost importantly, with our new P-Patch, my gardener husband is really happy.

P-Patch Aug-2014Which makes me happy.

Finally, at the ripe old age of 42, I can officially call myself a gardener.

ps. The yellow squash “baby” I’m holding in the first photo was gifted to us by a fellow P-Patcher. Thanks, Shannon!

Strawberry fields forever

Strawberry-pickers-me-&-MrMarkSometimes too much of a good thing can be a very good thing.

Last weekend for Father’s Day, Marcus’s family and I took my pop-in-law Mr. Mark to Harvold Berry Farm. This U-Pick farm is a favorite of Marcus’s family. You can pick (and eat) as many strawberries as you want for $1.25 per pound.

Mr. Mark watched us pick because his knees just aren’t what they used to be. In less than an hour, Marcus, Char (Marcus’s mom), Logan (our nephew), and I picked 21 pounds of berries! We filled two big baskets like the one below to the brim. My sis-in-law Christy took these great photos when we finished–very muddy, but happy.

Strawberries-just-pickedYour back and thighs get a little sore bending over and crouching the whole time but you forget that when you see how beautiful the berries are.

Strawberries this ripe need to be eaten, cooked or frozen right away. After eating some fresh ones at the field and then later at Char and Mr. Mark’s place, Marcus and I took 11 pounds home with us. Because we want to have strawberries year-round, we decided to freeze our bounty.

Here’s how to do it.

1. First, fill a clean bowl or bucket with cold water. Place berries in the water and gently swish until you get all the dirt off of them. We had to do this several times as we had a lot of berries.

Strawberries-drying2. Lift the berries out of the water (do not drain them into a colander or else you’re dumping dirty water right on top of your clean berries!) and place them on cookie sheets lined with several sheets of paper towels.

3. Pat them dry with paper towels. Do not skip this step! If you don’t dry the berries, they will stick to the cookie sheets when they freeze.

Strawberry-freeze-24. Next, place the dry, clean berries on unlined cookie sheets.

Strawberry-freezze-35. Then, place them in the freezer for two hours. After two hours, check them to see if the outside of the berries are cold and dry. If they still feel tacky or a little damp, freeze for another half hour and check again.

Straweberry-freeze-4They should look like the berries on the left when they are fully frozen: dry, cold and hard.

Place the berries in freezer-safe tubs or freezer bags and store in your freezer.

Our 11 pounds of frozen strawberries will last us from June through December and they only cost us $13.75!

So, next time you have the chance to purchase ripe fruit in season, and at a good buy, consider buying more of it and freezing it.

With just a little work and effort, you’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor (pun intended) throughout the rest of the year!

Top two photos at Harvold Berry Farm by Christy Rainchild.

Buy herbs & spices in bulk

Spice JarsOne of the easiest ways to cook up tastier food is to add more herbs and spices.

One of the cheapest ways to buy herbs and spices is to buy them in bulk.

I recently filled up several of my herb and spice jars at my local food co-op, the PCC. See photo above. I also recently cooked with all of them, which is why they aren’t all the way full (they were full when I bought them).

On, a 0.7-ounce jar of Spice Islands brand thyme costs $9.16. Crazy! At the PCC, I filled up the same jar with thyme for only $1.22.

Even crazier, a 0.3-ounce jar of Spice Islands parsley costs $7.58. How much did my bulk parsley cost? 43 cents.

Last but not least, you will probably pay $6 for 0.6-ounce jar of oregano. Highway robbery! How much did I pay for the oregano in bulk? 28 cents. Yes, hello, 28 freakin’ cents.

If I had bought these online or at the grocery store, it would have cost me $22.74.

Buying them in bulk cost me $1.93.

That’s a savings of $20.81.

That’s enough to buy a ton of vegetables or a really beautiful flank steak to cook with the herbs. Making one small change to the way you shop can save you a ton of money.

Thyme jar with TAREAlso, bring your own jars.

That way you can buy just the right amount of herb or spice to fill your jar and you don’t have to waste more plastic or paper bags or twist-ties.

All you have to do is go up the cashier and have them weigh the jar for the tare weight. Mark this on the jar. For example, this jar’s tare weight is .26.

FYI, 4134 happens to be the code # for bulk thyme at the PCC.

When the cashier rings up your herbs and spices, he or she will subtract the tare weight from the gross weight so that you are only paying for the actual herb or spice and not the jar.

Easy-peasy! And by reusing your jar, you’re helping the environment.

By the way, if you don’t have spice jars, buy empty ones in the bulk aisle (convenient, isn’t it?) at most grocery stores or at your local Goodwill or secondhand store. They will cost 50 cents to $1-2 each, which is a lot less than buying a new bottle of herbs or spices.

So next time you’re running low on seasonings, go SUPER FRUG and take your jar with you to the grocery store to buy your herbs and spices in bulk.

Your taste buds will thank you and so will your wallet!

ps. Even though I’ve been buying herbs and spices in bulk for years, bringing my own jars to refill at the store was inspired by Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home.

Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson

Zero Waste Home by Bea JohnsonI love Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson.

It is exactly the kind of smart, stylish, practical, frugal, minimalist, conservation home guide that I’ve been looking for.

But I didn’t know I was looking for it until I happened to run across a little blurb in Sunset magazine that said that Bea’s family of four only produces one quart of garbage per year.

That’s right.

One quart.

Can you believe it?

I had to find out more. Which led me to this slide show article on Sunset’s web site called “The zero-waste home.”

After looking at the inspiring slides and reading the article, I put Bea’s book on hold at the library. I checked out her blog and her top tips. When the book came through after a few weeks, I devoured it in a day. Then I read it again.

Zero Waste Home is chock-full of great tips and examples of how Bea and her family have been able to reduce waste, reduce consumption, save money and still live a fabulous and fun life. It is a book after my own heart.

I’m so inspired by this book that my next blog posts will detail how I’ve put Bea’s tips to work in my home and in my life. Stay tuned. In the meantime, check out the book!

NOTE: The book links on this page are affiliate links, so if you end up using any of them for your own online shopping, Super Frug will benefit (thank you!).

Create a weekly menu

Ever find yourself looking in the fridge at 6:00pm and wondering, what am I going to have for dinner? You’re hungry as a bear, too tired to go to the store, and you’re trying to save money so you don’t want to eat out again.

What’s a busy Super Fruger to do?

Create a weekly menu.

Not only does it help you to simplify your grocery shopping, but you’ll never be at a loss over what to cook for dinner again.

For years, I called my weekly menu Le Menu. I’d write it on an index card and post it on the fridge. Sometimes I’d stick by it and other weeks I wouldn’t. In any case, it helped a lot to know what we needed to buy at the grocery store every week and what we were cooking every night.

Now, I’ve simplified our menu even more. Marcus and I thought about our favorite kinds of foods and created a weekly menu based on that. To give you an example, here’s our menu for last month.

Spaghetti Sunday
Beans & Rice Monday
Taco Tuesday
Vegetable Wednesday
Thrilling Thursday (chef’s choice)
Pizza Friday
Soupy Saturday

The dishes change every week according to what we feel like eating. For instance, one Monday we’ll have Louisiana-style red beans and rice, and on another Monday we’ll have Latin-style black beans and Mexican rice. This way, we get more variety in our diet and we don’t get bored.

By cooking more and eating out less, we save a lot of money. Also, we always make enough food for dinner and for lunch the following day. It’s so nice to not have to think about what you’re having for lunch and dinner every day. We save time and money. Bonus!

What dishes do you love to eat? What dishes do you enjoy cooking? Brainstorm, write them down, and have fun creating your own Le Menu!

October 2013 Update: Our weekly Le Menu has changed immensely since I started the Paleo Diet. Now, every day, we cook some kind of meat or seafood and lots of vegetables. For snacks, we have fruits and nuts. Except for a little white rice (because it’s easy for me to digest), we no longer eat grains or legumes.

The changes to our health and well-being has been amazing. I used to have IBS issues regularly and they’ve decreased immensely. Marcus’s acid reflux has also reduced immensely. If you’re interested in learning more, read this informative and amusing post on The Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet by NerdFitness.